Pressure makes Capitol backtrack on gutting public records law

Gov. Brown and the Legislature reverse course on allowing local governments the option of blocking access to public records — thanks to outrage from media and citizens.

SACRAMENTO —You don't normally see politicians who are firmly planted in their positions suddenly do acrobatic 180-degree turns.

But last week was very abnormal in California's Capitol. Odds are what happened won't be repeated for a long while.

It showed the power of public pressure — and the dexterity of successful politicians quick to recognize the need to backpedal.

Actually, it was entertaining to watch.

In sum, first the Assembly speaker, then the Senate leader and governor, reversed course rather than continue to take heavy flak.

It involved the sensitive issue of government secrecy — a sensitivity the politicians initially had failed to grasp.

Let's back up.

In order to guarantee the citizens' access to government information, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the California Public Records Act in 1968. Over the years it was expanded. And local governments were allowed to bill the state for performing certain chores mandated by the act.

Gov. Jerry Brown didn't like paying up. And who can blame him? Local governments should foot the tab themselves for carrying out their duties.

In his January budget proposal, Brown sought to avoid dishing out state reimbursements to local governments by eliminating the mandate and making compliance with key parts of the records act optional. On June 14, both houses of the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a version of Brown's plan as a little-noticed piece of a larger budget bill.

Then the public bombardment began, stunning Capitol pols.

Newspaper editorials — especially — but also open-government activists and many individuals denounced Brown and the Legislature, urging the governor to veto the bill. Countless e-mails and phone calls poured into the Capitol. Los Angeles Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti called Sacramento's action "corrosive to democracy."

Investigative reporters use the records act to uncover incompetence and corruption in local governments, such as Bell. Under the legislation Brown was about to sign, if it had been in effect during the Bell probe, city officials could have covered up their corruption by blocking access to telling data.

As the public outrage grew, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Sacramento) decided to take matters into his own hands. He became the hero, the leader of the backtrack.

Pérez had never liked the idea of gutting the records act in the first place, he says. The Assembly's version of the budget hadn't included it. But the Senate's had. And in conference committee bargaining, the speaker went along to get along, following an old political adage.

"The governor wanted it, the Senate approved it," the speaker told me. "So at a certain point, you pick your battles."

"With all due respect," he added, "the press was asleep at the switch."

And basically he's right — until the measure actually passed.

Once the public uproar erupted, Pérez says, "we were happy to readdress the issue."

Last Wednesday, Pérez rode a Capitol elevator downstairs to tell Brown what he wanted to do: Pass a substitute bill stripped of the record-act gutting. He got a green light, the speaker says. A Brown source says the governor was noncommittal.